“Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative, mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot… It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it.” – Jessica Stern
My dog Finnley is truly my pride and joy. Finnley is a pretty timid Australian Shepherd who is scared of many things. However, he has one particular fear that surpasses all the others – balloons! Three years ago when Finnley was just a puppy, I threw a birthday party which included some balloons on the floor for decoration. Being a curious puppy, of course he had to go investigate the big objects that looked like toys. To no one’s surprise the balloon popped as soon as it touched his sharp puppy teeth, sending him into a panic of howls and barks from the loud noise. We’ve had a handful of events involving balloons since then, and each time Finnley shows that he hasn’t forgotten the incident from his puppyhood. The mere sight of a balloon causes him to shake, whimper, and hide in the nearest closet.
So what does my dog’s fear of balloons have to do with anything? Like Finnley, most of us have experienced a traumatic event in our lives to some degree. What we define as trauma varies. A situation that I experience to be traumatic may have little to no impact on you. While some may be able to easily move past trauma, for others it can completely inhibit their ability to function in day to day life.
What Exactly Is Trauma?
When you hear the word “trauma” maybe the first thing that comes to mind is a physical injury, like a broken bone or a deep cut. Injuries like this are easy for others to see, you can go to the hospital for treatment and everyone understands the pain that you are in. But what about psychological trauma – something others can’t see? This trauma comes from an event or series of events that you experience to be harmful or potentially life threatening and can leave a long-lasting impression. Trauma can feel quite isolating. It’s harder for others to understand the pain you’re in when they can’t physically see the wounds. Psychological trauma can come in three different forms:
- Acute Trauma – This results from a single traumatic event, like being in a car crash.
- Chronic Trauma – This comes from repeated and prolonged exposure to a traumatic event. This can be seen in victims of domestic violence and abuse.
- Complex Trauma – This comes from exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events. Complex trauma can be difficult to identify. You might not be able to point to a specific event in your life that caused the trauma, however that does not make it less impactful. An example of this could be childhood neglect or abuse from multiple people in your life.
Regardless of the type and cause, all trauma can have detrimental effects on an individual’s life. It can develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with symptoms including:
- Flashbacks – reliving the trauma as if it were happening again. Certain sounds, smells, locations, and situations associated with the trauma can trigger a flashback.
- Avoidance – avoiding people, places, and situations associated with the trauma
- Changes in arousal – becoming easily startled, having trouble sleeping and concentrating
- Other unsettling experiences, like nightmares and increased anxiety.
Our body’s response to trauma serves to protect ourselves from danger. But our bodies aren’t able to tell that time has passed and that we aren’t actually in danger anymore. Anxiety and a quick startle response are beneficial in the face of danger but becomes damaging when they persist once the threat is gone. PTSD also brings along an increased risk of other mental illnesses such as depression, substance abuse, and addiction.
Trauma is Not Just “In Your Head!”
“It happened so long ago!”
“You gotta let it go”
Maybe you’ve heard these phrases before. The ambiguity surrounding emotional or psychological often makes it difficult for others to understand what you’re experiencing. However, maybe you are suffering from a traumatic event or series of events in your life, but don’t feel like your trauma is “big” enough. Other people have been through worse, so you should just get over it, right? But trauma is much more than just a story or something that happened long ago. No matter how big or small, trauma leaves a mark. It affects your mind, body, and brain. Yes, your brain is in your head, but trauma is not simply “in your head” – it’s real!
In fact, experiencing trauma can literally change the brain! The brain areas most affected by trauma are the:
- Amygdala: Responsible for controlling aggression and perceiving emotions, especially fear and anger.
- Hippocampus: Mostly involved in storing long-term memories.
- Prefrontal Cortex: Plays a role in personality, planning, attention, and memory.
Each of these parts of the brain do some majorly important stuff! They make us who we are. The physical and psychological changes caused by trauma impact your capacity for pleasure, trust, engagement, and self-control. It’s as if every new experience you have is contaminated by the past. So maybe trauma doesn’t leave a physical mark, but the emotional and psychological effects are still ever present, nonetheless.
While I’m unsure if Finnely’s canine brain will ever heal from his balloon-trauma, I do believe there is hope for most human brains – that’s you! The trauma that you experienced cannot be undone, but the good news is that the aftermath can be dealt with using a variety of therapeutic methods and techniques. If you think the troubles you might be experiencing are possibly due to trauma wounds that have not healed properly, then please reach out to a qualified therapist in your area to find the best treatment plan for you.
You have suffered long enough. Take action today!
Hanah Barnard, B.A. is a contributing writer for this blog site. Hanah earned her degree in Psychology from the University of Arkansas. She currently serves as office manger for Family Solutions Counseling. Her fur-baby, Finnley, is pictured here.